It may not sound like the most useful of scientific endeavours, but the methods used to turn a hard-boiled egg back into its liquid state could bring major benefits to areas as diverse as cheese-making and cancer research.
It sounds like the breakthrough that no one was asking for: scientists have announced they have managed to "unboil" an egg. In a disgusting-sounding experiment that you probably shouldn't try at home, an international team of researchers have used urea, one of the main components of urine, and a "vortex fluid device" to uncook a hen's egg. They believe the findings could dramatically reduce costs in processes as far apart as cheese manufacturing and cancer research.
The researchers boiled an egg for 20 minutes, before focusing on returning one protein in the egg white to its previous state. The idea was to combat the difficulties that arise when proteins "misfold", forcing scientists to use time-consuming methods to untangle misfolded proteins or expensive methods to ensure the proteins don't get tangled up in the first place.
"There are lots of cases of gummy proteins that you spend way too much time scraping off your test tubes, and you want some means of recovering that material," says Gregory Weiss, professor of chemistry and molecular biology and biochemistry at the University of California Irvin. "In our paper, we describe a device for pulling apart tangled proteins and allowing them to refold."
First a urea substance was added to turn the cooked white back into a liquid. This was then put into a vortex fluid device, where the tangled proteins were spun and gently pulled apart until they refolded into their proper structure.
"They're getting stretched apart, and they snap back," says Weiss. "Sometimes they snap back into their natural shapes."
The process is a breakthrough because it only takes minutes. Previous methods of refolding proteins can take days and to avoid this scientists rely on expensive production methods. For instance when making cancer antibodies, scientists use expensive hamster ovary cells because they don't often misfold proteins. Cancer researchers, the pharmaceutical, agricultural and other industries could also save much of the $160bn they spend on proteins each year.
"I can't predict how much money it will save, but I can [predict] this will save a ton of time, and time is money," says Weiss.
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